Water | A Force of Nature
San Antonio Current
Part 1 of the Current 's series on the Guadalupe River.
The Guadalupe River is one of Texas' most important - and endangered - rivers. Thirsty cities want to tap it, speculators want to exploit it, and by doing so, they could destroy the Guadalupe and its nourishing power.
Groves of inexpressible beauty are found in this vicinity. The waters of the Guadalupe are clear, crystal and so abundant that it seemed almost incredible to us that its source arose so near. It makes a delightful grove for recreation.
The Guadalupe River springs to life in western Kerr County, where the rugged, rocky Hill Country fades into the Edwards Plateau. Emerging from cracks and fissures in the sun-bleached limestone, the river's pale blue-green waters run swift and pure as it begins its 230-mile journey across the heart of Texas to the coastal plains, San Antonio Bay, and finally the Gulf of Mexico.
The first mention of the Guadalupe in modern literature came around 1528 when the Spanish explorer Álvar Nuñez Cabeza de Vaca tried to establish a colony near present-day Victoria. Held captive by Indians before walking across the state on his way to Mexico, de Vaca described a "river of nuts" in his writings, in recognition of the abundant pecan trees growing on its banks and in the river's fertile bottoms. The river was formally named Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe in honor of the patron saint of Mexico. Referred to today as both the "Gwad-ah-loopy" or the "Gwad-a-loop," it is neither Texas' longest or the biggest of the state's 15 major rivers, but rather the most quintessentially Texan.
Within the Guadalupe basin are Texas' most prestigious summer camps for boys and girls, which have shaped and formed nature experiences for several generations of the richest and most powerful people in the state.
The basin also holds the two biggest springs in the Southwest - one of which has been continuously occupied and used by humans for at least 12,000 years, although it is more famous as the former home of Ralph the Diving Pig
The Guadalupe is also Texas' most heavily used riverfront, drawing millions of visitors to a 25-mile stretch for the simple pleasure of floating downstream in inner tubes and more exciting thrills of rafting and kayaking.
San Antonio's most popular lake, America's No. 1 water park, and the Whooping Crane, the tallest bird in North America and the most celebrated endangered species this side of the grizzly bear, all lie inside the watershed.
As the water turns muddier and the flow increases downstream to the point where its riverbanks are as much as a mile wide, the river provides sustenance for a multitude of farm crops, including a substantial pecan industry, for raising livestock in what is considered the Cradle of Texas Cattle Ranching, and for hunting, fishing, and shrimping, worth tens of millions of dollars every year.
The Guadalupe also provides sustenance to millions of Texans who depend on the river for drinking water and related municipal uses.
But for all those attributes and benefits - and in part because of them - the Guadalupe is also Texas' most troubled river. In 2002, American Rivers, a non-profit conservation group, designated the Guadalupe one of the top 10 most endangered rivers in the United States. Coveted by thirsty cities, tenaciously held on to by farmers and ranchers, exploited for new, competing uses as the population booms, the river's ability to sustain is no longer a given.
The Guadalupe is an extremely tough river to tame. The one significant reservoir, Canyon Dam, is saddled with the impossible task of holding back floodwaters in a region known as Flashflood Alley, which registers the highest number of deaths due to flash floods in the United States and has recorded two 250-year flood events in the past five years. Even when the engineering works as intended - as did the spillway in July 2002 when lake water flowerd over the passage for the first time since the dam structures were erected in 1962 - more than $85 million in damage was done downstream. Without the dam, it would have been twice as bad. Still, the topography changes so dramatically that, often as not, by holding water behind the dam and regulating its flow, flooding lasts longer farther downstream.
More threatening is the combustible mix of historic laws, traditions, wasteful practices, a statewide and regional mandate for communities to secure sufficient water supplies through 2050, and a rapidly growing number of users and uses for the river whose collective demand already outstrips the existing supply.
"Whiskey's for drinking, water's for fighting," Mark Twain once observed. A century-and-a-half later, water has become the New Oil in Texas, a commodity meant to be moved and sold, always flowing toward money, made possible by a series of state laws passed since 1997 and an antiquated law that won't go away.
That outmoded law is the Rule of Capture - the building block of Texas water law. Groundwater - water that lies under the ground - belongs to the owner of the property above it. In contrast, surface water, such as rivers, lakes, and bays, belong to the people of the state, a doctrine most Western states apply to both surface and groundwater. Texas is the sole Western state where Rule of Capture is still observed.
After regional infighting and several lawsuits, the Texas Legislature formed the Edwards Aquifer Authority and groundwater districts to monitor pumping as a way to prevent a property owner from draining his neighbor's water. There are 87 conservation districts statewide, some of which have attempted to restrict water from being moved out of their jurisdiction. This prompted several bills to be filed during the 2003 legislative session that would have given the state the authority to overrule actions of local districts, negating the purpose of a district in the first place.
Beyond the boundaries of the Edwards Aquifer and local groundwater districts, pumping of groundwater has increased to the point where demand outstrips supply. Pumping in unregulated parts of Comal and Hays counties - in the Guadalupe Basin - has already exceeded sustainability, a process accelerated by an explosion of development including more than 20 golf courses built in the last 20 years, each consuming from 500,000 to 1 million gallons a day.
The Region L water district, which includes San Antonio and most of the Guadalupe River basin, has determined that for San Antonio to sustain its growth and prosper through 2050, it needs to secure 200,000 acre feet of water per year (an acre foot of water is 325,850 gallons). The planning group has set a deadline of 2010 to implement numerous strategies to satisfy municipal and industrial demands, including conservation and leasing irrigation water from farmers with Edwards Aquifer permits. That has prompted the San Antonio Water System (SAWS), the Bexar Metropolitan Water District, the San Antonio River Authority (SARA), the Guadalupe Blanco River Authority (GBRA), and private companies to look for more water.
- Bill West, general manager, Guadalupe-Blanco River Authority
When the Edwards Aquifer Authority was being formed in 1991, Zack Davis and Tully Shahan were among the handful of Kinney County officials petitioning the EAA to leave the county out of the authority's jurisdiction. Only 16 percent of the aquifer lies under the county, amounting to 5,000 acre feet. The EAA obliged.
Thirteen years later, Tully Shahan, now the county attorney, wishes the EAA would have turned down the county officials' request.
That is because the EAA's decision to accommodate the request led Davis to seek out partners to help sell his groundwater. Landowners within the EAA's jurisdiction are limited to selling and moving no more than 50 percent of the water they use; outside the EAA's jurisdiction, such as in Kinney County, landowners can sell and move as much water as they want.
Shahan and his wife, Darlene, who is the general manager of the recently formed Kinney County Groundwater Conservation District, lead the local opposition to exporting water from the county. Without regulation, they contend, the county's groundwater will be mined and moved to satisfy the thirsts of cities and towns elsewhere. Property owners, including Zach Davis, who are eager to lease or sell their water, will profit at the expense of everyone else, they say.
The Shahans have felt the effects of pumping groundwater. In 1963, a neighbor drilled two wells 300 yards from the Shahan ranch, producing 2,000 gallons of water per minute that irrigated onions and other produce on their neighbor's property. "That same year, we lost six windmills and the use of 7,200 acres of land," Tully Shahan recalls. "My dad had to move over and start drilling for more water. He had to drill 200 feet deeper. Those wells still produce water today."
Kinney County's water surplus, the decline of the local agricultural economy, and the county's location beyond the EAA's regulatory reach has made it an ideal target for groundwater marketers. At least four groups of speculators have acquired water rights in the county to mine, market, and move groundwater somewhere else, most likely to SAWS and Bexar Metropolitan Water District in San Antonio, and the cities of Eagle Pass and Laredo.
These are not just any players. Davis sought out some of the state's biggest water industry people:
The Edwards Aquifer links Kinney County with the headwaters of the Guadalupe River, some 50 miles northeast, and to Comal Springs in New Braunfels and San Marcos Springs in San Marcos, more than 125 miles east. The aquifer's sustaining powers are visible driving west from San Antonio on U.S. Highway 90. On both sides of the road, fields of onions, corn, sorghum, oats, wheat, cabbage, spinach, cucumbers, and pickles flourish in the hot sun. They survive the heat thanks to irrigation pivots, mechanical contraptions resembling giant grasshoppers that draw water from several hundred feet below the topsoil. Despite the desiccated landscape, there is an abundance of good groundwater below, so much that in some places, such as Zach Davis' spring, water requires no encouragement to gush up in an artesian flow.
But the fields where the crops grow need the pumps to move water in the large volumes needed. Without the pumps and the Edwards Aquifer, Kinney County would have virtually no economy and little reason to exist.
Five years ago, the Shahans attended a Rotary Club meeting where the chairman of the Region L Planning Committee, which includes San Antonio, was speaking.
"He said people wanted to sell water outside of the county," Darlene Shahan says.
"Including our next door neighbor," Tully Shahan adds. "We worried we'd lose water on our land because our neighbor wanted to sell. We started going to conferences of all kinds, even environmental meetings, trying to learn about what was going on. The more we learned, the more we realized we got a problem here and it's countywide ... One landowner I went to said he was told by Zach Davis not to worry if his springs dried up because he'd be so rich, he could live anywhere."
Tim Brown, an attorney who represents 12 water districts, reportedly told the Shahans that forming a groundwater conservation district was the only way to protect themselves.
In 1949, the Texas Legislature gave local voters the option to create groundwater conservation districts as a tool to manage groundwater pumping without having to address the Rule of Capture. Groundwater districts continue to be promoted by the Texas Water Development Board as the "preferred means" to manage groundwater locally.
Tully Shahan began organizing to create a groundwater conservation district; State Representative Pete Gallego (D-Alpine) produced a bill for Kinney County. "But when it got to the Senate Natural Resources Committee they roughed us up," Shahan says. "[State Senator Frank] Madla [D-San Antonio] was getting pressure from Eagle Pass. They already had contracts to mine water in Kinney County."
Gallego informed the Shahans the bill wouldn't get out of committee until groundwater district proponents met with representatives of the lobbying firm, HillCo Partners. The county judge, two county commissioners, the whole Fort Clark Springs Municipal Utility District board, ranchers and farmers showed up to talk to Dan Pearson and Jay Howard of HillCo Partners. "They told us they wanted us to meet with their local representatives, Zachary Davis [who also sits on the board of the groundwater district] and Jim McDaniel," Tully Shahan recalls. "McDaniel is a pure farmer. Davis is a veterinarian who owns the hardware store. Both have artesian wells on their land. Zach turns on his well and water flows out of the ground. Zach and Jim both said, 'We don't want anything.'"
But during legislative committee meetings, Tully Shahan claims Zach Davis told him, "You're never going to able to function because we'll tie you up with lawsuits and in court, and flood you with paperwork."
Darlene Shahan says the groundwater district lacks the resources to respond. "The board members are volunteers. Our budget is less than $68,000. We'd like to be spending that on research, but because of HillCo and the legislature's pressure on us, we're spending most of that on attorneys' fees fighting the lobbyists."
Tully Shahan contends more studies are needed to determine if Kinney County can withstand extensive pumping. "No one knows what the impact will be if 200,000 acre feet is being pumped out of the county. It's all driven by money of course. What's going to happen when that flow isn't there?"
Vic Hildebrand, general manager of the neighboring Uvalde Underground Conservation District, the only district in Texas regulating four aquifers, has been watching the fight next door. He thinks the Kinney County district has been unfairly picked on.
"My deal since day one is we can give up a certain amount of water and anyone who wants to participate in the game can make money on it - I'm all for making money - but I want to know what the results of pumping will be and what protections will be in place before I give out a permit. I want San Antonio to get water. But I don't think they should be stifling my growth at my expense."
Hildebrand sees two sticking points: One is the pipeline and who wants to run water through it, the other is the private-public arrangement.
"It's the water purveyors who want to build it, not SAWS or anyone in San Antonio. The thinking is, when the pipe is built, SAWS will buy the water. That's not how it's done. When Disney built the park in Orlando, the first thing they did was buy all the real estate they'd ever need.
Then they announced they were building Disney World. That's what SAWS is doing in Gonzales with the Carrizo-Wilcox Aquifer. They're leasing water rights first before they build a pipeline. Second, why would they want to buy water from the purveyors when they can buy or lease the water rights themselves, and control the process from the ground to the faucet?"
Darlene Shahan thought the groundwater district was the right move for Kinney County. Now she's not so sure. "We're just getting hammered because we're a little district and we don't have the resources to defend ourselves. I don't know if our district is equipped to protect the water," she says with an audible sigh. "They've got a whole lot more money and a whole lot more influence than this little place will ever have."
Groundwater districts, she says, are hamstrung by the Texas Legislature. "We're prevented from treating farmers using irrigation for agriculture any differently from water exporters. If we permit a farmer five acre feet to irrigate, we can't change the permit if he decides to sell that water to San Antonio."
About the best the groundwater district can hope for, Darlene Shahan says, is for the Edwards Aquifer Authority to step in. "If there's abuse, the Edwards Aquifer Authority says they'll come in and do something about it. For me, having the EAA assist would be a blessing because we're not financially equipped to fight the biggest water marketers in the state."
That is unlikely because the Legislature has to approve any changes to the EAA.
Tully Shahan wants to believe landowners who want to sell their water and landowners who don't want to sell can coexist peacefully in Kinney County. "We're not opposed to selling water. We never have been. But let's do it with controls where what's taken out doesn't exceed recharge," he says. "We want to protect people who do want to farm here in the future. We have a rechargeable asset here that's free. We should scale back to a level that's rechargeable. That way, we'll all be making money for years."
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